Bible Reading Luke 3:15-17, 21-22
This is Baptism of the Lord Sunday. People went out into the countryside to hear John’s ministry of good news: that if they repented, if they turned away from their sins, that God would forgive them. Their desire to seek God’s favor -- and acceptance of his message through John -- was shown by their water baptism into this new thing that God was doing. This is the day that Jesus, though not needing to repent or be cleansed of sin, came to the Jordan to join with those who craved a deeper relationship with God. Luke sums the story this way:
The people were waiting. They were expecting something. They were all wondering in their hearts if John might be the Messiah. John answered them all, “I baptize you with water. But one who is more powerful than I am will come. I’m not good enough to untie the straps of his sandals. He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire. His pitchfork is in his hand to toss the straw away from his threshing floor. He will gather the wheat into his barn. But he will burn up the husks with fire that can’t be put out.” John said many other things to warn the people. He also announced the good news to them... When all the people were being baptized, Jesus was baptized too. And as he was praying, heaven was opened. The Holy Spirit came to rest on him in the form of a dove. A voice came from heaven. It said, “You are my Son, and I love you. I am very pleased with you.” (NIRV)
Message God Calls Us to Himself Isaiah 43:1-7
Many denominations have different views of how the sacrament of baptism is practiced. United Methodism generally practices infant baptism, followed by a confirmation when children are old enough to choose for themselves what was done for them in that baptism. When I was a baby, I don’t know what the practice was of the denomination I was born in. When I came of age, I was in a denomination that generally practiced baby dedication (the emphasis almost all on the parents), then when old enough it was followed by baptism with membership class. I and some Jr Hi friends from the church went through the class together and at the end, we were told that each of us had to recite from heart a section from the Articles of Faith in front of the church’s 200 people. That was bad enough for a kid like me who never opened his mouth. Then our church (along with other churches) rented a church in downtown Lansing that had a built in baptistry pool. If you can imagine a rectangle sanctuary, then to the right of the front platform there was a wall with widow curtains on it. When the curtains were parted it would reveal a window frame – no glass, and on the other side of it was an opening into a medium blue room with as background to the pastor and baptismal candidate standing in the pool.
I was glad I didn’t have to do it the year the host church forgot to turn the pool heater on. Some couldn’t enter that near icy water and had to walk around so the pastor could sprinkle the water on them through the “window”.
The year I was baptized our small group was sitting in a pew waiting for our turn to go back behind and get ready to be baptized when the pastor walked up and said, “Oh by the way, you are supposed to give a testimony to the congregation right before you are baptized. I know I managed to sputter out a couple sentences. I don’t remember what they were now, but was something about my desire to live for Jesus.
It was a similar desire to live for God that drew the people out into the wilderness to find John the Baptist, hear his message and be baptized. His world was very familiar with ceremonial purifications, some were even prescribed by the Old Testament. By the time of Jesus’, Jews had developed a practice of baptism for those who were converting to Judaism. This baptism symbolized washing away the uncleanness of their former non-Jew lives and grafting them into the people of God.
John's Baptism was for Preparation, Repentance - Remission
But John’s baptism was not a ceremonial nor a sacramental purification, nor was it for those only outside the Jewish faith. At its core, John’s baptism was a public declaration that a person was prepared to meet the coming Messiah. That preparation was accomplished by an ethical movement of “repentance for the remission of sins, That is, people prepared themselves for the Messiah’s coming by embracing what is good and right and by repenting (turning away from) what it is bad and wrong in their life -- leading to remission (like a disease that goes away) it leads to an absence of sin and its power in our life.
This new movement of God became so popular and created such a powerful and exhilarating experience that people began thinking that John himself might be the Messiah. When we anticipate and prepare, it is easy to then misconceive what we think God wants and what God is doing because of how the experience makes us feel. It is easy to not only rejoice in what God is doing, but to get caught up in the hype surrounding the success.
Luckily, John was very clear about who he was and what was his role. He recognized the importance of his preparatory work, but also knew that compared to who followed, his was only background work that would soon drift into the shadows as the true light of the world shines. He could only help bring about an outward desire and effort to live differently in hope of a new relationship with God, while it was only Christ himself, who by the Holy Spirit; would work an inward purifying change that would truly cleanse away sin and its power, making a relationship with God and new direction in life truly possible.
Point people to Christ
His role was not to draw attention to himself and the success of his ministry, but to point the people to the work God was doing in the coming Christ (the translation we read today said he “will come”, but the original language is present tense -- he is already coming.
Encourage genuine faith
His role was also to encourage them to be sincere in their repentance, because Christ brings the good news of forgiveness of sins and inward renewal and purification through the Spirit only to all who truly turn to God and take refuge in Him and his coming.
Serve God’s redeeming work
John understood his role was to be no more than a humble servant to God’s redeeming activity in his world. Redeem means to buy back or pay off, so that you have full ownership of whatever you redeemed. God has been creating and buying back his people from others that ruled over them ever since he sent Moses to deliver them from their Egyptian captors.
He was doing it again in Isaiah 43. In a time that his people felt abandoned, the Lord speaks to them -- and the Hebrew word for God in this text is Adonai (which emphasizes God’s mastery, rulership, ownership). This is what he says to the people through his prophet Isaiah…. I’m reading from The Complete Jewish Bible, with a couple substitute or additional phrases from the NIV (in brackets) for clarification.
But now this is what Adonai [the Lord] says, he who created you, [Jacob], he who formed you, Isra’el: “Don’t be afraid, for I have redeemed you; [I have summoned you] calling you by your name; you are mine. When you pass through water, I will be with you; when you pass through rivers, they will not overwhelm you; when you walk through fire, you will not be scorched — the flame will not burn you. For I am Adonai, [the Lord] your God, the Holy One of Isra’el, your Savior — I have given Egypt as your ransom, Ethiopia and [Seba] for you. Because I regard you as [precious] valued and honored, and because I love you. For you I will give people, nations in exchange for your life. Don’t be afraid, for I am with you. I will bring your descendants from the east, and I will gather you from the west; I will say to the north, ‘Give them up!’ and to the south, ‘Don’t hold them back! Bring my sons from far away, and my daughters from the ends of the earth, everyone who [is called by and] bears my name, whom I created for my glory — [whom I formed and made].” (CJB with [NIV])
God tells his people that they owe their origin, their character, their purpose for existence to him, for he has made them what they are, and he did that by redeeming them from their Egyptian captors through Moses, who led them through the waters and the hot desert wilderness and waters again to reach the promised land. For these great acts, God has a claim on them as his own people that he has named. Then he leaps to the present day, saying not only did he buy them from Egypt through the miracles of Moses -- now he was going to buy them again from Babylon.
At that time, the Persian Empire was busy expanding west toward Greece and east toward India. They didn’t consider Babylon strong enough to bother with, even though they were the ones who destroyed and stripped away the people and resources of Palestine and Jerusalem. Last week, I made and off script comment that Persia would have no interest or motivation to rebuild and restore Palestine and Jerusalem. But that wasn’t completely right. There was one thing that could entice Persia to rebuild and fortify Palestine and Jerusalem -- to make it a stepping stone to expand their Empire south. In essence, Isaiah is saying that God was offering Egypt, Ethiopia and Northeast Africa to the Persian Empire as a payment to buy back (primarily from the Babylonian Empire) the scattered exiles, who would come from all compass points to return to Jerusalem -- not yet to political power -- but to be a part of the restoring the holy land. And in fact, Cyrus did lead his Persian Empire to the city, appointing Nehemiah governor and he led, with Ezra and others, the renewal of the people. He did not invade Egypt, but his son did, and his son’s successor continued to use Palestine as a stepping stone to Egypt.
In the verses just beyond our text, Isaiah makes the point that the people who were to hear his message, yet not listen, to see, yet continue in blindness (See Isaiah 6:9b-10) have now reached a time when they are released, and their judgment is past, and they are to serve God’s redeeming work by declaring what God has done for them by shifting and moving of the world’s empires. And just as God’s people were called to serve God by rebuilding the city ad proclaiming his work on their behalf, so John was called to serve God by proclaiming his new work God was preparing to do for his people.
But before we move back to John, I want you to notice what they call the “arch structure” of this salvation oracle. This mirror-like wrapping of the text points to the center, and the center is the key point of the passage. Why does God choose to shape and form us, redeem us, call us by name and calm us from fear by being with us? Because God has always seen us as precious, valued, and honored, and deeply loved. That is why when his people couldn’t stay in Eden, he continued to care for and go with them, when his people needed Egypt to deliver them from famine, he arranged for Joseph to get there ahead of time in order to save them. When Egypt changed their tune and enslaved them, he sent Moses. When they couldn’t stay in the promised land, and were enslaved by the Babylonians, he sent the Persians. This names just a few of many examples, but ultimately, God’s redeeming work is not geographical or political, but a spiritual deliverance from the power of sin.
Jesus Baptism: Public commitment, Identify with people, Initiation of ministry, Take on sin
And so, while everyone was being baptized, so did Jesus come. He didn’t need to repent, for though while fully human he was without sin. But it was a way of publicly declaring his commitment to fulfilling God’s will. He came to identify with the movement of people who were sincerely seeking God. He came leaving his life in Nazareth and start his role as Messiah and when you wrap all these things together, it means that more than anything else, the sin for which everyone else was coming to repent, he was coming to take on to his life, as Paul put it in 2 Corinthians 5:21: Christ had no sin, but God made him become sin so that in Christ we could be right with God.(ERV)
This is the ultimate redeeming act of God. From this first day of Jesus’ public ministry, he is declaring his willingness to offer himself as a sacrifice for us to buy us back from the power of sin and death that has so entangled and sabotaged and subjected our lives to its dark influence.
Those powers caused Isaiah at one point to cry out to God, “Oh that you would rip apart the heavens and come down” (Isaiah 64:1) and in Jesus’ baptism we see God answering the sighing of the centuries. Jesus removes all barriers and paves the way for God’s children to reach their eternal home.
From the parted heavens the Spirit descends, declaring that Jesus is fully equipped with the gifts and graces to fulfill his role as Messiah. This is confirmed by the voice which adds, “You are my Son”, which by traditional law means the entire inheritance of everything God owns -- will belong to his Son, meaning Jesus has been granted absolute power and authority over all things. And God well pleased to do so because his Son is taking on the ultimate work of redeeming God’s people and calling them home to himself -- even now in this life.
From the beginning of the Bible to the end, the story never changes. God creates and shapes us, calls us by name, stands by us wanting to take away our fears, and moves heaven and earth and nations to bring us back to him -- all because God honors us as his precious, loved people (he is a “hopeless romantic!) And all he wants from us in return is to trust him, to genuinely repent (turn around) away from our sins and commit ourselves to his ways and serve him as his people involved in his redeeming work. And whether he is calling us to a time of promised land-like success and prosperity -- or an exile-like time of dark suffering, when we need to be faithful even when we don’t see wonderful results, we can know that he will be with us through the waters and fires -- and he will be with us on our spiritual journey -- no matter from which direction of the compass point our return to God may have come (no matter what we may have done in the past) and no matter where it may lead in the future, for it always leads us home.